Whoever saves a life, saves the entire world

The title of this post is an old Talmudic maxim, and one I have been thinking about over the course of the past few weeks. Two weeks ago, someone on a gaming forum I frequent mentioned that his grandmother took care of concentration camp refugees in Sweden after the war. In response, another member of the forum revealed that he was a “Wallenberg Jew”. He explained that this meant that his father was saved by Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish architect who rescued thousands of Jews from Hungary during the holocaust with protective passports. This fellow on the forum pointed out that his siblings, their children, etc., are all Wallenberg Jews, generations springing from a single life saved. Multiplied by the number of people Wallenberg saved, the effect one man had on the world is truly amazing.

And he was not alone. Just last week, I came across information on another humanitarian during the holocaust named Irena Sendler. Sendler, a Polish social worker, saved thousands of children from the Warsaw Ghetto by smuggling them out and providing them with false identities and places to stay. When one extrapolates how many generations and people exist on this earth only because of her actions, it is a staggering thought.

Both Sendler and Wallenberg were designated “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel, a special honorific for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the holocaust. I’ve always had a special admiration for those who stand up for subgroups to which they do not belong, and surely risking one’s life to save others during the holocaust is the pinnacle of this. Wallenberg died a half-century ago, but Sendler passed away recently in 2008. Her story was much less well-known, until a few years ago when a project was founded to tell the world about Irena Sendler.

A single individual can change the world. There are probably many more people we’ve never heard of, whose names would never spark any recognition, yet who single-handedly made a difference in the world far greater than any dozen celebrities whose names we could rattle off. For me, hearing about two such people unrelatedly in the span of two weeks was a sign that the matter merited some attention. There’s a place called the Lowell Milken Center where they research and share the stories of other unsung heroes, and while their names may never be as famous as the trending pop culture icons, at the very least it’s good to add these names to the history books, and acknowledge the tremendous contributions they made.

L’Shanah Tovah

A happy healthy new year to all of you. In the past year my latest book about Rhode Island was released, I did some rhyming work for an educational company teaching children how to read, and I participated in a poetry festival. All wonderful things, to be sure, but I think my magnum opus so far remains this line-by-line rhyming version of the Torah. If you are coming to the site for the first time, admittedly I have not updated often, but it is my hope that the book mostly speaks for itself. If you have not yet taken a look, I encourage (beseech) you to do so:

Thanks, and let us hope for peace in the new year.

5773

With the High Holidays now over, we’re into the midst of 5773, or for those of you who don’t use that calendar, we’re still into the midst of October. I know I haven’t done a lot with this site recently, although I have been busy working on an unrelated book about Rhode Island history that will be published next month. In the meantime, though, one of the advantages of the “eternal word” (as some call it) is that it doesn’t need current newsflashes and blogposts to remain relevant:

Hope you are all enjoying life as the year, the season, and the leaves, all turn.

Still loving thy neighbor

The Velveteen Rabbi has a lovely post about This week’s Torah portion: on loving our neighbors. As alluded to in my previous post, I see a lot of argument over religion in the world, but I’d be happy if people of all (and no) religions were able to come together on this issue. I’m fine with people who hold different beliefs about the nature/existence of God. My issue is with people who use their religious beliefs (regardless of how close they may or may not be to mine) as justification to treat some people as lesser.

Villanelle for National Poetry Month

Well, as you might suspect, the article referred to in the previous post never materialized. No matter.

The other week I was having an online conversation with a friend of a friend about morality (a subject dear to my heart), and we were discussing what might be universalizable. I said that while I don’t think there is any religion whose totality of moral teachings would be amenable to non-believers, the Biblical precept of “love thy neighbor as thyself” always struck me as a reasonable starting place, and we agreed that it would be a better world if people all showed compassion for and respect for the rights of their fellow humans, no matter what other differences they may have.

As I told some friends a few months ago, what I find most inspiring is when people stand up to improve the lives of others to whom they have no connection or shared affiliation save for their shared humanity. I am fortunate to have many friends out improving the world.

Anyway, this poem is some love for those who love their neighbors.

——

Relax, my friend, for you have earned your rest.
Though you may strive to set the world aright,
Just be yourself and I will be impressed.

Each day need not become an endless test
Wherein your burden is a constant fight.
Relax, my friend, for you have earned your rest.

Ambition drives you to become the best,
Yet blinds you to your current glowing light.
Just be yourself, and I will be impressed.

You seek to save the weak and dispossessed,
Yet for yourself, the care you give seems slight.
Relax, my friend, for you have earned your rest.

Your awesomeness I hope you will digest,
My love for you could have no upper height.
Just be yourself, and I will be impressed.

You’ll fix the world, and I applaud your quest,
But know you need not do it all tonight.
Relax, my friend, for you have earned your rest.
Just be yourself, and I will be impressed.

—————

Happy New Year

Well, Rosh Hashanah is upon us again. Just wanted to wish everyone a happy healthy. And I may soon have an interesting announcement regarding an article about my writing of this book. Don’t want to say more now, but I’ll certainly post something once I can say a bit more. In the meantime, I wish you all L’Shanah Tovah, and may the new year bring us all the things we hope for.

Still Here

Well, in spite of those who believed that today (May 21) was going to be the rapture, here we are still on Earth. It seems like an excellent time for me to remind you that the holy word is still available in rhyming form in a convenient book:

From God To Verse: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, in Rhyme

And while you’re waiting for that book to ship, you can start reading from Genesis 1 right here on my site. Sure, it doesn’t have the summaries or look as nice as the book does, but with all the main text of Genesis at your fingertips, it should tide you over until your package is dropped at the doorstep.

National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month.

How am I celebrating? Well, the fine people at the WordXWord spoken word festival have asked me, along with a few other poets, to write a poem a day for the entire month of April. While these are not Torah-related poems, and not all of them rhyme, I nonetheless figure that those who enjoy my poetry might be interested to see what I’m up to. (Besides, I spent a long time on today’s poem, so I want people to see it.) To give you a sample, here’s my poem from April 2nd:

“Perspective”

Last week I wrote
a fantastic poem
to alternately elicit laughter and tears
a poem that everyone would connect with
even you
but when I went to share it with an audience
I realized that someone had replaced it with a terrible poem
and I had not noticed earlier
because all the words were the same

So how are you celebrating National Poetry Month? Writing daily poems? Buying copies of God To Verse for all your friends? Writing limericks to a loved one? Posting on your own blog in verse? However you best deem fit, I hope you find interesting ways to enjoy April — if only to prove T.S. Eliot wrong.

70 Faces Review

My scheduled presentations for From God To Verse are now complete, so if anyone would like to book me to speak to your group (via Internet video or otherwise), please feel free to contact me. Most recently I spoke at the congregational breakfast at Temple Am David in Warwick, and I thank the organizers for inviting me and the audience for a fun Q&A session.

Meanwhile, I’d previously mentioned another book of Torah poetry on this blog, namely 70 faces, and I wanted to offer a brief review. But first, two disclaimers:

Disclaimer #1: The author of 70 faces, Rachel Barenblat (a.k.a. “The Velveteen Rabbi“) is a friend of mine.

Disclaimer #2: Before I wrote this review, I wrote her a lengthy email asking “Are you sure you’re okay with me doing this? Because I take my reviewing seriously and won’t go easy on the book just because you’re a friend.” She agreed.

So, about the book.

70 faces

70 faces is far from Barenblat’s first poetry book, but it is her first poetry book since being ordained as a rabbi. It is then, appropriate, that she has chosen to do a poem for each Torah portion of the year. (As you might suspect, I empathize with those who are completists, especially with regard to Torah-inspired work.)

I think what I like best about this collection of poems is the immediacy they convey. Reading many of the pieces, I find myself drawn into the emotional landscape, rather than simply reading about the stories of the Torah as one usually does. There is a pervasive humanity throughout the collection, which I think shines through and makes the poems easy to connect with.

A favorite line of mine comes from the very first poem “Postpartum”, based on the opening chapters of Genesis. Could the whole project be a wash? Aside from enjoying clever wording, I really appreciate the simplicity of the statement, the humanizing of the divine, and just how much is conveyed in seven words.

Her poem “Korban” on the opening chapters of Leviticus begins You’ll need a smoker. // Get one from Home Depot // and tighten each screw and bolt // exactly as the directions teach. These lines maintain the spirit of detailed scriptural instructions on how burnt offerings must be made, but are more (emotionally) accessible to the modern world.

Not that all of 70 faces is a proud heralding of the Torah. Barenblat does not shrink from taking issue with some passages, such as the Israelites’ songs of praise to the Lord after drowning the Egyptians. I don’t want to sing to the Lord, begins “The Psalm I Sing” …  not if that means celebrating // when the floodwaters or the bombs // have left their bodies bent and bloodied // even if they were cruel taskmasters // even if they hit us first // even if they are not like us at all.

Barenblat asks her readers to join her in really thinking about some of these ancient stories, and the work she does in engaging with the text really resonates with me.

In some places. And that’s my only real complaint about this book: Some of the poems do nothing for me. I’ll read three great poems in a row that really make me think, and then the next one will have me wondering if I’ve missed something. But perhaps that’s inevitable in any collection of poetry. And this one has everything from a sestina (no easy feat to write) to a poem that reminds me a lot of William Carlos Williams.

70 faces, like the Torah itself, ends up having some passages I enjoy more than others. Is the quality even throughout? Perhaps not, in either case. But for anyone looking to engage with the Torah on a more human level, this collection offers many fine pieces for reflection and connection, and for that reason I recommend it.

Happy New Year!

Again! Well, this is the other New Year, and I hope 2011 is off to a good start for all of you. I’ve been getting lots of great reactions to the book, some of which you can see in the Press section above. And I’ve got some more upcoming dates for you:

* Thursday, February 17, 2011 — Congregation Beth Israel (North Adams)

* Sunday, March 13, 2011 - Congregational Breakfast at Temple Am David (Warwick).

Furthermore, I have been informed that through the wonders of modern technology, I can present to a temple, church, classroom, or other room of people without actually being there. So if you have been wondering how to get a presentation on From God To Verse without footing a travel bill, contact me and we can discuss a tele-cast presentation using Skype.

Also, lest you be under the misapprehension that I am alone in combining Torah and Poetry, allow me to inform you that the inimitable Velveteen Rabbi has recently released her book of Torah poems:

And while putting out a book is a great accomplishment, it is dwarfed by the other news from the Velveteen Rabbi, which is that she is velvet no longer, having finally been ordained as a real rabbi. Mazel Tov!

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